The Year I Won at the Portland Marathon
This was the year it all came together just right. I knew what the marathon distance felt like, I’d run the course before and I had committed solidly to training. My running buddies and I had covered the distance and then some. I was forty and had three marathons under my belt. It seemed like everything was on track for a personal best. But long term self talk dies hard and when we got to the pre-race expo I felt my confidence draining away. All the work I had done to appreciate the benefits of running, such as thanking my legs for responding when I felt tired and congratulating myself for sticking with training and setting realistic goals whirled away as I confronted another reality: Using the marathon training as a weight loss tool hadn’t worked.
Furthermore, I couldn’t talk myself into believing that my size didn’t matter as much as my solid training foundation – my physical accomplishments. That time worn feeling so many face – you’re only as good as you look – shrouded my anticipation of the next day’s revelations: I always anticipated the lessons I would learn in a marathon – give what you’ve got when you’ve got it and you’ll have what you have when you get there; persist; fake it till you make it – and this time I felt that whatever I learned wouldn’t be enough to lift me out of the abyss of body shame.
Then, something came over me; perhaps the reality that the race would happen regardless of how I felt – we’d driven for nine hours and trained for sixteen weeks and my friends had their own training goals to fulfill; perhaps the acceptance that this was the only body I had in which to run. Over in one corner of the race expo there was a door leading to another room. The entryway read, Clydesdale/Bonniedale Category. Inside, there were several young, muscular men, a weight bench and a set of scales. Runners who were over a certain weight could enter themselves in this category and then in the race results, not only would they be ranked according to others of their sex and age but they would also be placed against those in their weight range. I decided to enter myself in this category.
My heart raced as I stepped on the scale and stared at the pounds along with the lovely young man in charge. For someone who had spent years avoiding scales except in the most private of circumstances, this public disclosure was a physical trial akin to the marathon itself. He recorded my weight and we moved on to the next “opportunity.” If I could benchpress half my bodyweight, I’d be entered in an even smaller category. They cheered me on and hovered over the bar for a few seconds while I gave it my all then rescued me with an easy swoop of the weights. I couldn’t do it and felt the shame building again; the weight wasn’t all muscle, clearly.
Fortunately, though, I had done lots of other strength training during my runs. On good days, I ran myself past the plethora of negative thoughts and into a reality where it was true that what my body could do was far more important than how it looked. I rejoined my friends and we set out to explore the city.
Race morning was the usual- we were jittery, coffee fuelled, Portapotty visiting, sensory overloaded seekers of the perfect starting position. We reviewed our strategies, which mostly consisted of running our own races but staying together for the first half and then the race started and we settled into a pace. For about the first twenty kilometres I could see the others then suddenly someone stepped in front of me, yelling “stop!” I dodged around him only to hear more yelling. Other runners ignored the warnings as well. Every muscle in our bodies was harmonized to the rhythm of one foot in front of the other for another twenty two kilometres – stopping was inconceivable. “Train!” halted us, though.
I still can’t believe I didn’t hear it – a freight train hurtling out of Portland a few metres ahead of me. By the time the train passed, my friends were long gone.
As I ran on, I fought to regain my steady rhythm by silently chanting, “persist.” And slowly, the revelation I had been hoping for simmered out of the shock of realizing how close I came to running into a train, despite people around me yelling “stop.” It forced me to consider how many other times in my life I would ignore blatant signals that I should desist.
For the last half of the run, I formulated a strategy to stop following the training plan I unwittingly set my mind to at about age twelve – the plan that said, “you will be happy when you weigh X so do Y till you reach X.”
My resolution was to apply everything I knew about “fake it till you make it” to my frame of mind.
If I could take my thoughts away from burning quads by smiling as if I felt no pain, why couldn’t I act my way into accepting the body I inhabited?
I finished the race with a smile on my face and reunited with my friends.
In Portland, my mind took a four hour, twenty-one minute and thirty-one second detour from its usual route. I can blame a train for not achieving a personal best; I can thank a train for shaking up my mindset.
Sixteen years later, I look back at the seventy-eight page results magazine and see myself in first place in a fourteen person category: FEMALE 155+LBS. 40 & OVER.
They didn’t issue any additional medals or prizes for this accomplishment; most days, I act like I don’t need a reward; most days this works.